Listening First

I recently attended a webinar hosted by the National Alliance to End Homelessness. The discussion focused on how housing advocates can speak about Housing First programs to gain support for those programs from the general public. (For this article, you don’t need to worry about what Housing First is, because that isn’t the point of this column.) As you might guess, a meeting hosted by a group called the National Alliance to End Homelessness, speaking to individuals who advocate for and provide housing to those who are homeless, became pretty self-congratulatory. Everyone assumed that housing was the correct solution, and that anyone who didn’t support it (or in this case, Housing First) was either ignorant or a villain.

I sent in a question through the chat, partly because I had a serious question, and partly because I wanted to play the devil’s advocate. I asked what standards a housing program has to meet to qualify as “Housing First”. The devil’s advocate part of the question was simple: the discussion assumed that Housing First programs are good, but it never asked if the way Housing First programs are run is good.

Housing First advocates can point to many statistics that show that Housing First is the best solution to homelessness, but they usually look at the most successful Housing First programs for their information. The truth is that any program is only as good as the people overseeing it. The webinar I attended never considered that someone might oppose Housing First programs because the programs they had seen didn’t deliver on the promises they made. I’ve seen homeless individuals with serious mental or physical health problems giving housing, but then left on their own to find resources for getting healthy. I’ve talked with landlords who lost significant amounts of money from working with Housing First programs that would not pay for the damage clients did to appliances and apartments.

As I wrote earlier, I’m not trying to make a point about Housing First. Instead, I’m thinking about all the times I or someone else has had good intentions, and often a well thought out plan, only to make mistakes and then get confused when others don’t wholeheartedly join in their efforts. It’s easy to see the benefits of your own position, and it’s easy to poke holes in your opponents’ arguments, but it can be much harder to accept that your own position has a problem.

I’ve found that one of the best safeguards against this attitude is to avoid words like “villain” and “opponent”. Very rarely is someone who disagrees with me evil, and often the solution they want is surprisingly similar to mine. I haven’t, for instance, met anyone who opposes Housing First programs because that person is actively trying to make more people homeless. They would like homelessness to end as much as I do. They just have a different strategy for making it happen. I’ve learned that while we may never agree on the method, listening to their criticism, rather than vilifying them, often shows me that I have overlooked problems with my own ideas. It allows me to take what is (hopefully) already a good idea, and make it better.

That is, after all, why I wanted to play the devil’s advocate. I knew that Housing First programs can be effective at dealing with homelessness, but unless the programs are run well, the programs’ advocates will likely create resistance rather than support. It was one of those times where we should have been listening more than speaking.

by Marti Maltby, Director Peace House Community – A Place to Belong

This article originally appeared in “The Alley,” the newspaper for the Phillips neighborhood of Minneapolis.